Disclaimer: I’m using the word triggered to describe the process of an experience/feeling that a child has that triggers a response in us as parents. As someone with depression and an anxiety disorder, I’m aware it can have other meanings regarding trauma and mental health. This will hopefully be helpful to many.
When I had my son I thought I must have had this parenting thing down pat! He never had the ‘terrible twos’ that other people talked about and he never had sibling jealousy. I thought I must have been just that good (hahaha!) But when my daughter turned three, I had a short five years of parenting under my belt and more and more I was finding parenting harder and harder.
Cameron, my eldest, was much more like me so I found lots of parenting with him felt somewhat second nature. He wanted comfort when upset (Lucy did not), he was very logical like me and was more inclined to hear my reasoning with decisions.
Lucy, on the other hand, triggered me.
I didn’t know this at first. I didn’t understand why I found myself struggling more. Why I felt so out of my depth. I even thought maybe I was just a better mother to boys. I was naive to how differences in how we process things could trigger me.
Funnily enough I realise now that she’s like me in many ways. Seeing myself in her triggered me back to my childhood and emotions I had not yet processed.
What are triggers?
Triggers are those things that when your child does/says/feels them, you have an involuntary negative response.
Depending on your childhood and who you are as a person the trigger may make you feel angry, shut down, get upset, feel out of control or feel like you want to punish your child.
These triggers can feel almost automatic. Sometimes they’re really out of proportion too and hard to understand your own reaction.
Triggers are often related to things from our own upbringings, schooling or experiences. Triggers don’t have to be just negative things our children do too.
Sometimes a child experiencing something positively (that we never had the chance to!) can trigger us too. Many of us were not ‘allowed’ autonomy or to be ourselves free from unnecessary control. So sometimes our children living this way can trigger us.
The most important part of parenting with triggers is remembering that you’re NOT having a reaction because your child is behaving a certain way. You’re having a reaction because of what that behaviour means to you and that is triggered from your own past experiences!
What can triggers look like?
Sometimes we are triggered by our children’s emotions because we haven’t been raised in a way that allowed us to process emotions in healthy ways. Many of us were not able to express the full spectrum of emotions without being shamed, punished, belittled or ignored. For some this means that a child being angry or upset really provokes a strong negative response inside us. Sometimes even children being ‘silly’ triggers us to our own inner child who was shamed for being silly.
Emotions are a really powerful trigger! When faced with big emotions we can sometimes feel like our toolbox is empty as parents as we haven’t had respectful parenting methods modelled to us. I can assure you this gets easier with time and support.
Many of us were not allowed to disobey as children without being punished so when our children do, we feel confronted and challenged. It can invoke a reactionary response based on what happened to us.
Sometimes we are triggered because the things our children do are things we would have been punished, shamed, belittled or even bullied for. We feel protective over them and fear them experiencing the same things. It’s important for us to remember that our job isn’t to stop them from being themselves but rather to help them know that they are unconditionally loved and appreciated for their authentic selves by us. We don’t want to unconsciously recreate our fear by stopping them from being themselves. We have to advocate for them when people around them aren’t respectful.
In some instances, triggers come about because we don’t know what to do. We weren’t parented how we are trying to parent and this child expecting this of us can feel like a big ask. I know I’ve had moments where my child is struggling and I am thinking “I don’t know how to help!” and I’m then triggered into feeling worthless.
Triggers are as individual and varied as we are as parents.
Here are some common triggers that I have heard or experienced:
Concerns about waste (e.g. children wasting food)
Concerns about health (e.g. children not eating)
Concerns about safety (e.g. children being risky)
Children being authentically themselves (when you weren’t allowed that)
Children not sharing
Children being unkind
Children being dishonest
Children not using manners
Children talking back
Children being picky
Children being ‘bossy’
Children ‘being rude’
Children being angry
Children throwing a ‘tantrum’ (why tantrums is in quotation marks)
Children being silly
Children not listening
Children not taking you seriously
A lack of privacy
A lack of personal space
Feeling touched out
Many of these come down to how we are triggered to feel. Ironically much of this is what we aim to protect for our children – for them to be able to have autonomy, respect and a voice.
The trouble with triggers is that they can rob us (at least temporarily) from being able to be the parent we want to be. We can act impulsively in a protective way to stop our own emotional discomfort instead of how we genuinely want to for our children.
Some of these things come down to helping our children respectfully navigate our own personal boundaries. But many are things that children deserve to be able to do. In those instances we need to parent through these triggers.
So how do we parent respectfully when triggered?
The great thing to know is that we can parent through and beyond triggers and we are not powerless to our past and the reactionary responses.
1 – Identify your triggers
The most significant step in parenting respectfully with triggers is recognising that we are triggered. Not placing the blame on the child. Not punishing the child out of fears and an inability to cope. And certainly not punishing ourselves for feeling inadequate. This awareness is paramount. Without it we can’t short circuit the reaction.
- Take the time to recognise your triggers. There’s no time limit on this so just observe yourself more in your daily life and realise the things that make you have a reactionary response. You can even write down your triggers if you think it would help you.
- Talk to other parents who you are close to and work through what triggers you. Sometimes voicing our triggers helps us to see more clearly what the root of the issue is.
- See a therapist if you can and you feel you need more professional help to recognise what your triggers are and why.
2 – Understand why we are triggered
Next it’s significant to work out some of why you get triggered. This is important to begin to understand our reaction! Sometimes this isn’t very clear but other times realising the why is really ground breaking in helping us to help ourselves.
For example, I get triggered when I feel unheard because I felt unheard a lot as a child. When a child doesn’t listen to me, I can feel uncharacteristically upset. Once I realised that it wasn’t a matter of “Grrr my child doesn’t listen to me” and more that I felt unheard and my child wasn’t at fault here for having feelings of their own, it really opened me up to helping myself.
Some will find talking this out with a friend or partner most helpful, others will prefer to journal. Ultimately what it comes down to is observing, being aware and really focusing on the experiences and how they make us feel. Then we can work down to the root of what is being triggered – how do we feel, what does it remind us of?
Being honest and open with ourselves is vulnerable with these deep feelings but the more we uncover, the easier it is to move forward.
3 – Focus on unmet needs
Awareness of when our triggers are about unmet needs. So many triggering experiences are really about us as parents not having our own needs met. Our needs being met doesn’t have to be at the expense of our children. It’s important to realise our power in helping our children know our needs as well as their own. A family culture of working together and being a team goes a long way!
Self-care is important. We don’t have to be away from our children to have self-care. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Simple, small, actionable things that fill your cup are very powerful! I have an upcoming post about this!
4 – Re-parenting yourself
I have an entire post on this so that is a must read in helping navigate triggers. This made all the difference to me. Self-empathy is empowering! Support is necessary.
Everything changed once I saw the power in re-parenting yourself. The life-changing power in being who you needed when you were a child. We need to re-parent that inner child!
5 – Take TIME
In the moment, slow down. Sometimes it feels like parenting is really urgent. But almost always it is not. Even simply being honest and saying “I’m finding this hard, give me a moment please”. Taking a breath and giving yourself some space to think and do some of the tools above is very helpful!
Be gentle with yourself. Grant yourself the space and time to really process the triggers. Know that years will not be undone simply, quickly or without discomfort. Growth is uncomfortable. Lean into it. I know it’s hard, believe me, but it’s worth it.
BONUS – Honesty
Another really impactful thing I unintentionally did regarding triggers is that I was open and honest with my children about them. You don’t have to give traumatic information or indeed much information really. However, letting our children know that we find certain things harder and it’s not their fault is really helpful.
This helps them with empathy as well as keeping them in the know when you’re needing space or time to process something.
So what are your triggers? What do you think contributed to them? I hope this is helpful for you!
Thank you for reading!
Thank you! I love the list of triggers..it’s so universal and yet so lonely.
Thank you for your article. I needed it and plan to use it as a manual. For the step 3, could you please illustrate what this frase means: “It’s important to realise our power in helping our children know our needs as well as their own”? For me it looks as burdening the child with my inner state, but I think you mean smth else.
This is an amazing article and I appreciate your willingness to be more aware of yourself and how your kids aren’t to blame and how you are actually seeing them as a way to heal rather than blame. I don’t have children but this is what I needed as a kid. I’m struggling so much with just basic relationships and working through trauma triggers what seems like 24/7 all do to my mother dehumanizing me all my life. I greatly appreciate how you are sharing this with the world and there are people like you out there who are really taking responsibility for yourself. This is website and articles you have written have really hey me tremendously and will continue to do so in my own healing. Thank you so much.
pinki solanki says
Insightful. Felt it touched the core of the parent child conflict and how to navigate the same .
Wendy Shepherd says
Very insightful. I will look at my journal in a new light. I very much struggle with my eldest who suffers anxiety.
I totally agree. There is a condition known as Childhood Emotional Neglect and the possible repercussions are Complex- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The long term effects can result in depression. I know, because I am dealing with all three. Extremely difficult when you yourself are trying to set boundaries and trying to keep yourself in check from being triggered. I constantly second guess myself which in itself is exhausting. What has not been mentioned in this article is when you are triggered by your spouses reaction when they overcompensate for something they might feel is unjust. This undermines everything that I am working on and invalidates my efforts. I would really appreciate some feedback.
I am glad to read an article that acknowledges how the parents own tiggers could get in the way of meeting the childs needs, based on the parents unmet needs not being met. When our emotions were not allowed or shamed then makes it difficult to respond to our child’s emotions and deal with them, without reacting or shutting them down.
What about when they’re 18 months old and really insistent! I can’t teach her my boundaries or explain that I need more sleep and I’m going to rest my eyes (she cries if she sees me lay down and close my eyes and asks) to nurse. EVERY. TIME.), or that I’m really struggling right now, give me a minute. Her cries and clinginess just get amped up in that case, which triggers me more. Ugh! It’s been the hardest three days! 😭
I am so sorry Bethany! My 6th child is nearly 18 months and I have been taken aback by her specific need for/dependence on me. It has felt overwhelming to have a child that refuses others. I love Rachel’s advice “The life-changing power in being who you needed when you were a child. We need to re-parent that inner child!”. Despite my overtaxed self at the moment of my child’s need, when I parent her in the way that I needed I have found it fills her need and simultaneously heals a piece of me. It is not easy but when combined with the other advice has a powerful effect.
Nathan M McTague says
I love this Rachel. I couldn’t agree more! And I appreciate how thoroughly you cover the topic. SO many of us struggle with being triggered by/in parenting. We most often don’t even realize we are carrying these old wounds from our own upbringing until we’re forced to face it/them by what comes up around our own kids. Interestingly, our limbic system (the cingulate cortex specifically, in this case) lights up like a Christmas tree in response to our children’s emotions — just like their cingulate cortex does, in fact, mirroring each other so closely that at first our brains can’t tell *who* is having the overwhelming emotion! So we have a neural element of being connected to our children’s emotional outpourings, combined with how our programming invites us to react to the emotion. The cingulate entrainment — which can feel debilitating if our own emotional processing habits aren’t fully, optimally developed — can, if and when we heal ourselves or can occasionally work past our programming, be a real boon for bonding, connecting over the emotion, and helping our children process through their upsets. But until we do that healing work for ourselves, we go on getting “tricked” into being triggered and making our children’s tough emotional work more arduous for everyone. Thanks for this elucidating post! Definitely sharing.
Here’s a few of other resources on emotional co-processing, and healing our own wounds:
Cingulate cortex entrainment: https://nathanmmctague.com/2015/11/05/meet-your-emotional-brain-or-whose-tantrum-is-this-anyway-nathan-mctague-empathy-parenting-advice/
Working with our kids’ emotions: https://nathanmmctague.com/2015/08/22/friend-of-foe-turning-childrens-upsets-into-assets-for-the-family-nathan-mctague-empathy-parenting-advice/
Healing and integrating old trauma: https://nathanmmctague.com/2017/11/17/working-with-our-wounds-integrating-ancestral-transgenerational-and-early-life-trauma/
Thanks again for this excellent piece, Rachel. Be well!
Such a great post. I try to stop and breathe when I get triggered.
It think its better to do that than fly off the handle.
Once I am under control I can deal with the situation better.
My biggest trigger is when my 7 year old hurts my 4 year old on purpose when he frustrated, angry or jealous.
I feel bad that I can’t protect my 4 year old and I get really frustrated with my 7 year old.
Lisa Keifer says
This is amazing. I find myself triggered a lot with my son’s behavior but I could never figure out how to deal with it. I wonder if I might add a link to this in one of my blog posts? I write about battling depression and anxiety while being a stay at home mom, and this article is exactly what I needed.
Thank you. This is such a help. And it’s not only my children, but also my marriage that triggers so much of my over reactive behaviors. In uncovering my own wounds, (or shall I say allowing God to uncover and heal them), I have found Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak to be a huge blessing. God bless.
Such an affirming article! I’m currently recovering from C-PTSD from my own traumatic childhood, and I wish someone had explained everything like this to me before I had kids. I’m so glad I know now, and I’m turning things around, not just for myself, but for my children as well.
Very helpful! I find myself triggered by certain things my 5 and 3 year old do, and I’ve gone from 0-60 in a matter of seconds. Then I am filled with regret. It can be such a terrible cycle. Thank you for these great actionable items. There is a lot out there about what respectful parenting is, but THIS is the nitty gritty I need to keep immersing myself in to become a better mom. I know what I want to do for my kids, but HOW seems like an insurmountable challenge when you don’t have many good models.
Thank you so much for this! I love reading all your posts but this one helps to know I’m not alone! I want to be this super respectful parenting and know all the right ways I should be responding but a lot of times don’t. I think the having good intentions is great, but without getting to the root of my own anger, nothing will change. Thank you for suggestions 💗